Neville Cardus. Caricature: Austin Coutinho
Neville Cardus. Caricature: Austin Coutinho

Neville Cardus was born April 3, 1888 (contrary to the usually accepted April 2, 1889), supposedly in a Manchester slum. Before him, cricket was reported. With him it was felt and appreciated. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life of this doyen of cricket writers.

Mythology of folk heroes

As sun was setting on the Victorian Era, Test cricket was waddling through its infancy. The Englishmen and Australians met often enough, engaged in what had already become known as the battle for the Ashes — frequently producing epics that are still recalled with rheumy eyes and wistful longing for the good old days.

One such encounter of 1896, at the Old Trafford, saw the Australians chase down 125 in the final innings to emerge victorious by three wickets. The match remains immortal, however, for sterling feats by two players in the English team — the 154 on debut by KS Ranjitsinhji, and the lion-hearted fast bowling by Tom Richardson, whose 13 wickets in the match went down in a losing cause.

Years later, Richardson was established as a tragic hero in the English folklore by virtue of this account:

“No man could expect him to bowl in this superhuman vein for long … But Richardson’s spirit did go on burning like a dazzling flame. The afternoon moved slowly to the sunset — every hour an eternity. And Richardson did bowl and bowl, and his fury diminished not a jot.

“Other English bowler’s faltered but not Richardson … the Australians now wanted 25, with only three wickets keeping, McKibbin and Jones — two rabbits — among them. ‘Is it possible?’ whispered the crowd. ‘Can it be? Can we win?’ … Why look at Richardson and see: England must win. ‘This man is going to suffer no frustration. He has bowled for two and a half hours without a pause. He has bowled till Nature has pricked him with protesting pains in every never, in every muscle of the great frame. He has bowled till Nature can no longer make him aware that she is abused outrageously, for now he is a man in a trance, the body of him numbed and moving automatically to the only suggestion his consciousness can respond to — ‘England must win’ ….

“With nine runs still to be got by Australia, Kelly gave a chance ton Lilley at the wicket, and Lilley let the ball drop to earth. The heart of Richardson might have burst at this, but it did not. To the end he strove and suffered.”

This was the manner in which Neville Cardus embossed the deed of the day into the annals of time. Let us forget for a moment that he was seven when the match was played.

According to John Arlott, “Cardus was the first writer to evoke cricket; to create a mythology out of the folk hero players … There can never be a greater cricket writer than Neville Cardus. He created it. There is not one of his juniors who has not been affected by him.”

Cardus performed the alchemy of changing reportage to literature. Other chroniclers of cricket could have spoken of a young talent as one who promised much and failed and later come of age to show a glimpse of his worth. It was not enough for the genius of Cardus. He would write: ‘(he) suffered many a fall, just as a fresh-born bird does – but with the same excuse, he knew he was destined to soar sooner or later; he felt it in his young blood.’

When Ranji would bat at the wicket, some would strive to describe that mystical stroke off his legs that became known as the leg-glance. To Cardus that was incidental — what mattered was “when Ranji batted a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields, a light out of the East.”

Art and authenticity

Arlott was right. Cardus took an earthy game played on the green field and made it soar in the realms of the mythological heroes and magical creatures. Cricket writing had seldom been touched by the grand plume of Apollo. The sparkling artwork in the reports penned by Cardus often lived on aeons after the echoes of willows on the leather had died down in the memories and record books. And sometimes, the protagonists would be at a loss to recognise themselves in those accounts. For Cardus, cricket was a muse — honest men plying their trade took on the stature of mythical luminaries, and often commonplace deeds were presented as eternal quests. The facts often fell prey, burnt down by the brilliant fireworks of wordplay. Cardus converted cricket reporting to literature in the form of historical fiction, which seldom gave credence to accuracy over art. Treating him as historian would be falling victim to a spectacular illusion.

Cardus was only seven when Tom Richardson bowled his heart and sinews out at Old Trafford in 1896. He had almost certainly not been at the ground; and even if by some queer chance he was, would not have been able to tell George Giffen from Ernie Jones. But, in the traditional pastime of flannelled fools, he identified a rich, but largely ignored, aesthetic seam, and it was the skill with which he exploited this reserve which was to set him apart from all cricket writers; and, with the exception of Bernard Darwin, all other sports writers too.

The danger in reading Cardus is that the sheer brilliance of writing may make us prefer to believe the writer rather than the facts written about. The characters of his cricket chronicles perform ethereal drama, and we can indulge our senses to the fullest, ignoring that the historical accuracy may be conspicuous by absence, hidden by the dazzling light that engulfs the show.

It should not matter. After all Shakespeare never saw Agincourt. So, as long as we are not forced to believe in the existence of ghosts, we can continue to be smitten by ‘To be or not to be.’ Cardus demands the same elevated pleasure and hint of caution.

Foggy Origins

As with his cricket writings, the several autobiographies of Cardus confuse us. They were his ways to escape from the memories of mundane existence, from the shackle of slightly sedate memories of his early days into the heights of romanticism of his fantasy.

Hence he would like us to believe he was born in a Manchester slum, in poverty, to an unknown father and mother of questionable occupation, and grew up in hardship — forging his way to a man of refinement and intellect, reading classics and philosophy in local libraries and scraping a living till the wheels of fortune turned this urchin into a world renowned writer. He never saw his father and was told that he was: “of a tall, saturnine of countenance and one of the first violins in an orchestra. He was dispatched to the coast of West Africa on ‘business’ in the course of which it was subsequently arranged for him to die.”

The truth is that the conditions he states in Autobiography are dubious. The descriptions are filled with historical inaccuracies, of the Manchester of the day and birth registers of his locality. Cardus enjoyed not a lavish childhood, but a reasonably comfortable one. He even possessed a cane-handled bat — a present from his favourite Aunt Beatrice. This same aunt – beautiful and classy in a comparative sense of the word — sang arias to him while he slept, both his grandparents were literate, and the family sometimes visited the opera. During the late 1800s, this was very near to being privileged, especially in the class of society Cardus himself hailed from.

He did develop his knack for literature through a voracious perusal of available books in the local library, and Charles Dickens played a rather dominant role in the engineering of his fancies. Hence, most of his later reminiscences about extreme poverty, from which the self-made man emerged, read strikingly Dickensian and are about as true as Pickwick Papers.

However, he did grow up in close proximity to the Old Trafford. During his very impressionable days, JT Tyldesley enjoyed his annus mirabilis in 1901. ‘Mercutio and D’Artagnan rolled into one’ as he used to say later, this Lancashire batsman was Cardus’ boyhood hero.

The following year saw the arrival of Joe Darling’s Australians and the great feats of Victor Trumper. At Old Trafford, Trumper raced to his century before lunch. Years later, Cardus would recall: “His cricket burns in my memory with the glow and fiery hazard of the actual occurrence, the wonderful and consuming ignition. He was the most gallant and handsome batsman of them all.”

Again, whether he was actually present in the field or not is rather irrelevant. What remains are the accounts, and the best of scribes in the ground would have been hard pressed to pen lines of equal vivre and impact, constrained as they were by ability and, often, by facts.

Shrewsbury

As he grew up, Cardus planned his education with the discipline of a military campaign. He discovered philosophy and music, and hankered for a rebirth — ‘highbrow’ and ‘intellectual snob’ were epithets he revelled in. Through his childhood he had been known as Fred. During his early days of youth, he rechristened himself Neville.

He also played a lot of cricket in the leagues. According to his own account he gained a certain reputation as an off-break bowler in spite of his slight bespectacled frame, simply by aiming at a vital point of the batsman’s anatomy and letting him have one straight through after that.

In 1912, Cardus was accepted as an assistant cricket coach in Shrewsbury School. He spent several years here, spending his non-teaching hours by continuing to educate himself with sumptuous reading material while polishing and perfecting his art of writing. Soon, his merits in the field of literature and music were discovered and duties extended.

In 1917, Cardus applied for a job at the Manchester Guardian by sending a letter to the editor CP Scott. Even this communication saw a quaint mingling of fact and fiction, and fascinating flair. “I am a young student intent upon devoting his life to politics and art. In these times, however, I am finding it hard to keep alive… I have had to educate myself, and my culture, such as it is, has been got by scorning delights and living laborious days for some eight years.”

It was not exactly true. Cardus was working in Shrewsbury, and if his expenses exceeded his income, friends such as his fiancée Edith were happy to help him and did. Nevertheless, he did obtain employment with Manchester Guardian and would be associated with the establishment till his death.

The birth of ‘Cricketer’

Cardus had trained himself to write about drama and music. However, at the Guardian he was placed as an apprentice, with not exactly much of a sphere of specialisation. The first leader he wrote was about the ‘legal and moral issues raised by the torpedoeing of an Allied ship in neutral waters.’

In due course, he was primarily given assignments as a drama critic, while he aspired to write about music. At this stage, he said later, “If anybody had told me that I was destined to make a reputation as a writer on cricket, I should have felt very hurt.”

The birth of the ‘Cricketer’ was sheer chance. Cardus was sick, confined to bed for eight weeks with a pulmonary condition, when news editor WP Crozier suggested that a way of convalescence could be a few days in the sun at Old Trafford. Cardus followed the instructions and enjoyed himself. Soon, he was writing about cricket. Madeline Linford, the secretary of Crozier, had come up with a name for the columnist — ‘Cricketer’. It was a byline so stunningly unexpected that it was instantly accepted.

But, how would someone who had painstakingly trained himself to write about European culture, Shakespeare and Bach reconcile to chronicle the edge through the slips, the deep fine-leg and the sticky dog?

The style changed domains seamlessly. The same effusive expressions to describe a Wagner opus was transferred to Frank Woolley, a flourish of Strauss became a Jack Hobbs hit to the leg.

When the action in the middle became uninspiring to strike a chord with the musical parallels, Cardus often dwelled in the past. The deeds of Tom Hayward and Archie MacLaren appeared ever so often in his descriptions of the Lancashire games of the 1930s. Often the noted newspaperman would be seen walking around the streets adjoining Old Trafford cricket ground, with the match in progress, dreaming up metaphors to dazzle the readers, making up for his absence from the action with a surreptitious eye on the same scoreboard he famously dismissed as an ass.

Fancy and finesse

He captured cricket as a painter and not a photographer, with halos appearing around the ones who tickled his fancy. Some were hugely justified, as in the case of the ‘boy’ who in 1930 “kindled grand bonfires of batsmanship for us. But never once has he burned his own fingers while lighting them.” The respect he had for Don Bradman was mutual. The greatest batsman considered his articles superbly written.

However, sometimes wings sprouted around honest toiling cricketers who were not really touched by genius. Emmott Robinson, a hardworking yet limited Yorkshire all-rounder who never made it to the English side, was given divine origins with: “God scooping up the nearest acre of Yorkshire soil at hand, then breathing into it and saying, ‘Now lad, tha’s called Emmott Robinson and tha can go on with the new ball at t’pavilion end.’”

Thus, Jack Hobbs was deservedly written about, with flourishing eulogies, covering his movements at the wicket, at the nets and being recollected in myriad appreciations. His celebrated opening partner Herbert Sutcliffe, who ended with a Test average superior to Hobbs, batted with an angled bat and seldom played in the region between point and mid-on — the strokes of grace and grandeur that elevated cricket to art form. Hence, in all Cardus chronicles we find just a solitary page on this great Yorkshireman, penned almost as an afterthought.

He did not desist in his urges to make up matches either, especially when the art of his quill demanded imagination to run free. He says in his Autobiography that on his wedding day he had gone to Old Trafford as usual, accompanied by Edith, and had stayed for a while to see (Harry) Makepeace and (Charles) Hallows come forth to bat. “As usual they opened with care. Then I had to leave, had to take a taxi to Manchester, there to be joined in wedlock at a registry office. Then I – that is we – returned to Old Trafford. While I had been away from the match … Lancashire had increased their total by exactly 17 — Makepeace 5, Hallows 11, and one leg-bye.”

Neville Cardus making a speech at the Cricket Writers Club dinner for England's team for the tour of the West Indies at the Press Club, London, in May 1950 © Getty Images
Neville Cardus making a speech at the Cricket Writers Club dinner for England’s team for the tour of the West Indies at the Press Club, London, in May 1950 © Getty Images

Tossing aside our Cardus, if we delve into the prosaic tomes of Wisden, we discover in the soulless pages that Makepeace and Hallows had opened the batting only once in June 1921, in a completely different match, in which Makepeace had made 4 and 24 (retired hurt) and Hallows 109 not out and 0.

Thereafter, Makepeace was out of the side for a month, and they did not bat together again till August.

In other words, that match of slow rhythm and leisure had been played in the romantic imagination of the great Cardus.

However, as mentioned, Cardus created historical fiction from cricket, and of the most excellent kind. He wrote as ‘Cricketer’ till 1939 and the subscription of Manchester Guardian more than doubled because of his columns.

A touch of music

In 1927, Sam Langford, the music critic of Manchester Guardian, passed away. Neville Cardus doubled up with the job of his dreams. ‘Cricketer’ wrote of the summer game, ‘NC’ reviewed music.

The days were spent in cricket grounds around England and the nights in music halls. Cardus had accomplished his dream. There was no happier life. And there were trips to Vienna and Salzburg, soaking up European culture, often accompanied by Hilda Ede, his romantic dalliance, the woman CB Fry was charmed enough to name ‘Milady’.

His music criticism is often referred to as the more important of his life’s work. There are criticisms that he paid more attention to the soul of the recital than the anatomy, but even Cardus confessed that he was first a music critic and a cricket writer by chance.

Cardus went to Australia in 1936-37, to cover the Ashes tour with Gubby Allen’s men. The result was the collection of essays compiled as Australian Summer one of the many collections of his cricket writings.

As England and Australia played one last time in 1938, Trent Bridge witnessed one of the greatest innings played in the land. Stan McCabe batted with a panache that made Bradman call the rest of the team to the dressing-room balcony to witness a display the like of which they might never see again. Cardus recorded:

“Now came death and glory, brilliance wearing the dress of culture. McCabe demolished the English attacks with aristocratic politeness, good taste and reserve. Claude Duval never took possession of a stage coach with more charm of manner than this. His boundaries were jewels and trinkets which he accepted as though dangling them from his hands … he is in the line of Trumper, as no other batsman today has inherited Trumper’s cloak and sword.”

Australian sojourn

War broke out in 1939. As a true historical novelist, and a rather lovably fraudulent scribe, Cardus chronicled it with flair and fabrication.

“On the Friday morning when Hitler invaded Poland, I chanced to be in the Long Room at Lord’s watching through the windows for the last time for years. Though no spectators were present, a match was being continued …  As I watched the ghostly movements of the players outside, a beautifully preserved member of Lord’s, spats and rolled umbrella, stood near me inspecting the game…. Suddenly two workmen entered the Long Room in green aprons and carrying a bag. They took down the bust of WG Grace, put it into the bag, and departed with it. The noble lord at my side watched their every movement; then he turned to me. “Did you see, sir?” he asked. I told him I had seen. “This means war,” he said.

Wisden tells us that the match scheduled to be played on that day at Lord’s, between Kent and Middlesex, had been cancelled. No ghostly player had moved around on the ground had they not been spirits in the real, or incorporeal, sense of the word.  In his scholarly The Lost Seasons, Eric Midwinter tells us that Cardus himself had actually been far away from Lord’s that day. But, the anecdote is a combination of English traditions of cricket, Lord’s, peerage and the indomitable British war effort. Who would complain at a little twist of facts?

In 1940, Cardus travelled to Melbourne to cover the musical tour of Sir Thomas Beecham for The Herald. Later he settled in Sydney and joined the staff of Sydney Morning Herald. However, initially he courted unpopularity with his criticism which seemed more suited for ‘Salzburg than Sydney’. Later however, he modified his style, sprinkling it with humour. It was reported that even race horse trainers found his writings on music amusing.

Post War

Coming back to England in 1947, he found a War-weary England. Although he thoroughly enjoyed a summer of heroics of Denis Compton and Bill Edrich, the newspaper world had been transformed. During several false starts with Sunday Times and London Evening Standard, Cardus spent the period publishing several of his collection of music criticisms and the immensely popular — if overly fabricated — Autobiography.

Finally, settling down in London near Baker Street, Cardus started writing for Manchester Guardian again, covering music and cricket — but at a far diminished number of words per week.

He went to Australia twice more, to cover the Ashes contests of 1950-51, and 1954-55 — on the last occasion to write impressions rather than day to day reports.

The times were different. Flights of fancy needed to be chained down because of broader coverage of matches and increased number of journalists at the ground. However, although he never again used the pen-name ‘Cricketer’, the spirit was back in earnest. In 1953, he reported from Lord’s:

“Panic gibbered around the ground when Evans was nearly stumped… It was a stand of noble martyrdom; and in the end it was the martyrs who each had been crowned with a laurel wreath …. Compared with Lindwall of Monday, he could be likened to a volcano which having erupted was content to sleep awhile…. In little more than an hour 53 runs had rippled over the field, like background music at a funeral service. … Oxygen was in the shape of a new ball, administered at three o’clock.”

Last days

Neville Cardus reduced his writing commitments over the years, but his aura did not diminish. He remained celebrated as a raconteur to whom cricket and music lovers flocked to be regaled by stories, anecdotes and memories. For his seventieth birthday, he received a tribute book as a gift with contributions from, among others, Otto Klemperer, Sir John Gieguld, Jack Hobbs, Len Hutton, Kirsten Flagstadt, Wilfred Rhodes, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Ernest Tyldesley and of course,  Emmott Robinson.

Five years down the line, in 1964, Neville Cardus was appointed a CBE. Two years later he was made a knight of the British Empire.

During the last few years of his life, Cardus groomed aspiring writers. The young brigade sought him out for advice, and the master, according to his own admission, “thrived in the role of patron, encourager and ‘accoucheur’.”

Neville Cardus passed away in February 1975 at the Nuffield Clinic, London, a few days after collapsing at home. More than 200 people attended the memorial service at St Paul’s, Covent Garden. All the worlds he had delighted in — cricket, music and journalism, were represented by their august members. Clifford Curzon, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, played the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23.

The eulogy was provided by the cricket writer and historian Alan Gibson, who, along with Arlott, was the only one in cricketing circles who came close to the erudition of Cardus. According to Gibson, “Just as Macaulay changed the course of the writing of history, Cardus changed the course of the writing of cricket. He showed what could be done. He dignified and illuminated the craft.”

In Autobiography Cardus says: “I found my Kingdom of Heaven in the arts … the only religion that is real and, once found, omnipresent.”

His writings about the game demonstrate that for him the cricket grounds around the world were the unadulterated gardens of Eden, where men in white went about performing their divine deeds.

Yes, the Cardus cricket chronicles mingle fact and fabrication to the extent that the boundaries disappear, but the books and articles by him are not some mere tomes of history. They are as much epics as ever penned by Homer, Ovid, Lucan and Vyasa. Accounts of appreciation, beauty and unquenchable capacity for joy.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)